By ESTHER A. NGUONLY, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - The number of naturalized foreign-born residents in Maryland in 2005 has more than doubled in the previous 10 years, and the percentage of eligible immigrants who became citizens rose 20 percentage points during that time, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center released Tuesday.
Maryland has one of the highest percentages nationally of immigrants who naturalize. The number of naturalized citizens in the state rose from 120,000 in 1995 to 274,000 in 2005, while the number of those eligible has remained relatively unchanged.
"Today's immigrants are interested in becoming U.S. citizens," judging by the rising percentage of those taking advantage of it, said Jeffrey Passel, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center.
In 2005, 52 percent of all legal, foreign-born residents were naturalized U.S. citizens, an increase of 14 percentage points since 1990, according to the study.
Maryland's naturalization rate is much higher than the national average, with 71 percent of eligible, permanent, foreign-born adult residents in 2005 naturalized, as opposed to 51 percent of the nation's eligible pool, according to the study.
The most significant impact of the increased naturalizations on the community, said Passel, is the higher share of immigrants who can vote.
The increase indicates great interest among immigrants to take part in state policy decisions that may affect them, such as in-state tuition, said Kim Propeack, spokeswoman for CASA of Maryland, a non-profit advocacy group for immigrant communities.
"The numbers in Maryland are stark, but we could be doing better," said Propeack, who pointed out that immigrant groups vote at the highest percentage of any other community.
Programs endorsed by the state to help immigrants attain citizenship need to develop in Maryland, Propeack said, citing as an example the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which provides resources for immigrants seeking citizenship and helps new citizens register to vote.
The willingness of other countries to tolerate dual citizenship, changes in immigration law in the U.S. or the maturation of the immigration population may be driving the propensity for immigrants to naturalize.
To become a naturalized American, immigrants must be at least 18 years old; live in the U.S. continuously for at least five years; be able to read, write and understand basic English; answer questions about U.S. government and history; undergo a background check; "demonstrate an attachment to the principles of the Constitution," and take the citizenship oath, which swears allegiance to the United States.
A higher share of immigrants are seeking to naturalize, said Passell, and at a much higher pace, with more immigrants seeking citizenship sooner than they have in the past.
The groups most likely to naturalize are immigrants with higher education levels, those who have been in the U.S. longer, those who speak English well and immigrant women in the labor force, he said.
Of seven U.S. regions listed by the study, the mid-Atlantic, of which Maryland is a part, became the top region containing both the largest number of naturalized citizens in 2005 as well as the highest percentage of naturalization among those eligible, surpassing New England and the Midwest.